Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Ma's Hand-sweetened Cornbread from The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Unlike the Ingalls family, who eat Cornbread on a daily basis, I have never before eaten the stuff. I've never even seen it close to. Here in England, I think not many of us are familiar with it unless we've visited Canada or America, or have friends with Cornbread heritage who have shared their Thanksgiving meal traditions.

I didn't know what it would taste like, or what the texture would be like. I spoke with a friend who has made Cornbread many times from a typical Canadian packet mix, and she said it's great warm, spread with butter. I knew that it's a good accompaniment for stews and roasts so the day I made it was a day when we were heading over to Mum and Dad's for roast pork, when my brother, sister-in-law and nephew were staying after Easter. I knew Andy and I couldn't manage the whole loaf on our own, but we didn't get much help from my brother's family as none of them eat wheat. The recipe is half and half plain flour and cornmeal so they couldn't have any. 

The recipe included a bit of natural yoghurt and milk, an egg, butter, salt, bicarb and baking powder.  You start by heating the milk in a pan, then taking it off the heat to let the butter melt in. Meanwhile, all the dry ingredients are mixed in a large bowl, ready to pour in the mixture of buttery milk, egg and yoghurt. It's very easy to mix it all up, and it produces a unique sort of dough/batter. Not quite cakey. Not quite bready. Not even quite sconey. A sort of damp but not sticky, yellowy dough. The recipe instructs to use a round cake tin to bake the cornbread in, but Ma doesn't use a tin, and I think that if I'd wanted to, the dough was dry enough to pat into individual flat loaves like Ma does:

"Ma made the cornmeal and water into two thin loaves, each shaped in a half circle. She laid the loaves with their straight sides together in the bake-oven, and she pressed her hand flat on top of each loaf. Pa always said he did not ask any other sweetening, when Ma put the prints of her hands on the loaves."
Cornbread is such a comforting presence in The Little House on the Prairie. They eat it so often, and always seem to relish it. At the time, they had not yet sown or reaped any of their own crops so their meals are very simple and sparse.

Their days are very full and active, so I suppose they were always ready for their meals when the time came, however plain or repetitive they may be. As a reader, you never tire of hearing about Ma preparing supper, mixing up the cornbread time after time. So I really, really wanted to like cornbread myself. I wish I could say that I like it, but I'm afraid I just can't. I had a slice of mine, still warm and spread with butter. It was odd. Sort of grainy and tasting faintly of sweetcorn, and very salty. I didn't eat any at dinner - I was too intent on helping Oscar finish his delicious pork, but Mum and Dad tried a bit, sloshed with dark gravy. 

It was fun to make, and interesting to taste, but I'm just not sure Cornbread is for me. My friend Helen has offered to gather some of the best recipes for it from her Canadian friends, and it would be intriguing to see how they compare, but I think I'm mostly just not a fan of the texture of polenta (cornmeal). I would gladly eat bread, or cheesy dumplings, with a big meal, but the thought of tasting the Cornmeal again kind of turns my stomach. Andy isn't a fan either. But it won't change my enjoyment of the fictional Cornbread - I will picture it as soft and tasty as ever.

PS Since writing this post, my friend who knows lots of Canadians has recommended not using coarse polenta but using coarse Cornmeal, which is, after all, different from polenta.

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